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Blatant Lies and Subtle Untruths about Russia’s War in Ukraine

What are tankies, vatniks, and ‘useful idiots’, and why do they deride traumatised Ukrainians as warmongers and Nazis? 

Illustration of Russian President Vladimir Putin
Illustration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: zixia/Alamy

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For the majority of the world, the war in Ukraine is a pretty black-and-white issue. Perhaps few wars in recent history have ever been more clearly a case of good and evil, right against wrong. However, there is a small, but very vocal, minority that continually insists that not all is as it seems. They are the tankies, the vatniks, and ‘useful idiots’, and some of them have very powerful voices. 

Named after the Soviet tanks which invaded Hungary in the 50s, a tankie is a person who bases their every position on the premise that the West, in particular the US, is the cause of every evil throughout the ages. A vatnik is a person predisposed to believe anything that the Kremlin says, as they have become ensconced in Russian propaganda. And a ‘useful idiot’ is a person too stupid to realise where they belong on the Dunning-Kruger axis (in which people with little knowledge or ability tend to overestimate their ability or knowledge). What they all have in common at the same time is a propensity for conspiracy thinking. Nothing in the world is what it seems, you won’t see this in the mainstream media, etc.

At the heart of most conspiracy thinking are two fulcrum myths. One is that the global media is somehow controlled behind the scenes, and instructed to ignore certain topics while pressing other (always nefarious) issues. A second is that wars are nothing more than a way for weapons manufacturers to make enormous profits. 

In the case of Ukraine, the “mainstream media” myth has led to people seeking information from supposed “alternative” sources of news. And “alternative” news sources have tended to give higher weight to Russia’s deluded version of events as that is what serves as a supposed counterbalance to the perceived and conventional wisdom. The resulting pro-Russia take is then portrayed as a contrarian position vis a vis “the media” by those suckered into it.

The example just cited is a retired US Army Colonel leading with “HERE IS WHAT THE MEDIA WILL NOT TELL YOU” to his 109,000 followers.


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Those parroting Russia’s lies or narratives have also decided that those who push to accelerate, rather than stop completely, the delivery of weapons to Ukraine as being either pro-war or warmongers. Why?

This is where the war profiteering part comes into play. While it is true that weapons manufacturers do make profits, this lens ignores one pretty major factor in this conflict that is on full display, and that is the fact that the Russian leadership delights in and gloats over their often—stated intention to destroy all of Ukraine as well as the Ukrainian identity, language, and culture. That, without a doubt, is the primary driver of this war, not the profits of some firms that produce the weapons necessary for Ukraine to fight back against it.  

As a result of this warped thinking fed by half-truths and outright lies, in this awful phase of this brutal war, I regularly see Ukrainians being harassed and abused online, oftentimes they are women, for the record. While they are dealing with the trauma of being subjected to regular aerial attacks, and worrying about loved ones at the front, they are often treated as punchbags by bullies, trolls, and the ignorant. A nation suffering collective and individual crisis after crisis should not be treated so unfairly.

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Another recent example of the unhinged unloading on Ukraine came from Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene. Talking to her 2.9 million Twitter followers she shared a video of a meeting between President Zelenskyy and climate activist Greta Thunberg with the following comment: “Somehow this makes so much sense from the actor wearing army green every day, fully funded by U.S=war mongers, and who just recently cancelled elections, controls his state media, and has a Nazi army.”

Greene is on record as being a follower of QAnon, on board with Pizzagate, and blames forest wildfires on “Jewish space Lasers” too.  In her firehose of anti-Ukrainian talking points there are grains of trust extrapolated to the ludicrous. Ukraine is supported by the United States, of course, that’s a fact, but by “warmongers”? That would imply that Ukraine, the country subjected to the worst horrors of this war, is a warmonger too, nothing is further from the truth.

Cancelled elections, again, this is true. But this is not Zelenskyy suddenly allowing power to go to his head and turning authoritarian as a result. During war time Ukraine cannot hold elections, as per the Constitution.

Control of state media is another extrapolation of facts to produce a totally false narrative. Certain media properties have indeed been shut down since the all out war began in February of last year. Specifically, the media outlets of one Victor Medvedchuk were closed. Why? Because Medvendchuk is related, through baptism, to Vladimir Putin. Proving Medvedchuk’s usefulness to the Kremlin, he was actually sent to Russia in a prisoner swap in September of last year. Medvedchuk had been accused of high treason. That is what was behind the closure of his publishing and broadcasting activities.  

Nazis and Peacelovers

“Nazis in Ukraine” is another lie that will not die. There exists a variety of reasons why Russian propagandists repeat this disgraceful slur. The first is that it dehumanises Ukrainians, thus making it easier to justify killing them. A second is that this evocation of the “Nazis” as the enemy stirs in Russian citizens the sense of pride they have over their actions in World War II.

In reality, for the first two years, from 1939 to 1941, when the Soviet Union was allied with the Nazis and jointly engaged in the invasion and occupation of Poland, and when they began the occupation of the Baltic countries that would last for decades, and fought a war against Finland to expropriate territory from them, are always overlooked. Meanwhile, there is no political representation in Ukraine for groups with extremist ideologies of any stripe, because voters here do not support such views. In fact, Ukraine is not a “nazi” country but Russia is a fascist state.

The conspiracy theorists have lost touch with reality, and that is what has opened their minds to false Russian narratives, but another subset exists within the group, and that is those who present themselves as “peace lovers” who just want an end to all of this. Their arguments do not stand up to any scrutiny either. 

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Central to their case is that Ukraine must make (territorial) concessions to end the war. Why? Why would anyone think that Russia is entitled to, or should be, any part of Ukraine? Here’s Putin himself stating in 2008 that there was no conflict over Crimea and that Russia has long recognized the borders of modern Ukraine.

There are many ethnic Russians living in the parts of Ukraine that Russia has laid claim to. There’s some truth to this, but to extrapolate from that these people, therefore, yearned to be a part of Russia is a massive leap from fact to an assumption that is simply not evident. There are no examples of popular movements from any region of Ukraine, including Crimea, to be a part of Russia since independence. 

Those who claim to be pushing for peace believe that if the West stops the flow of weapons to Ukraine, the war will magically end. More nonsense, but of course none of these supposed peace campaigners explain how they will get the Russians to stop fighting in this war. Ukraine did not choose this war, but Ukraine has chosen to win it. More weapons are needed to hasten the end of the war, depriving Ukraine of modern weapons will drag the conflict on because, if needed, Ukrainians will fight to free their people and return their land with pitchforks.

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